The US on Friday imposed new sanctions on Iran as President Donald Trump followed up on his campaign pledge to take a tougher stance towards the Islamic republic.
The Treasury department added 13 individuals and 12 companies — including Chinese, Lebanese and Emirati — to its sanctions list, freezing their assets under US control. Sean Spicer, White House spokesman, said the sanctions were a “very, very strong stand against the actions Iran has taken.”
The announcement came hours after Mr Trump tweeted: “Iran is playing with fire. They don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, fired back, saying the Islamic Republic was “unmoved by threats”.
The exchange was the latest salvo in an escalating war of rhetoric. This week, Michael Flynn, National Security Adviser, detailed what he described as a series of aggressive actions by Iran, adding: “We are officially putting Iran on notice.”
On Friday, Mr Flynn issued a remarkably bellicose, five-paragraph statement that accused Iran of destabilising the Middle East and threatening American interests. “The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over,” he concluded.
The announcement came days after Iran tested a ballistic missile, and caps a week of hectic foreign policy activity by the Trump administration in which it cautioned Israel on settlements and clashed with Australia over refugee resettlements.
Iran is playing with fire. They don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!
US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described Friday’s action as part of a tougher approach to Tehran.
“Iran continues to support behaviour that is not sustainable, not acceptable, violates norms and creates instability in the region,” an official said. “Iran has a choice to make.”
Without a shift in Iran’s posture, the official suggested that additional US actions would be forthcoming.
Mr Trump’s rhetoric has raised tensions with Iran amid concerns that he intends to follow up on his campaign pledges to unravel or renegotiate Tehran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers. The US president has repeatedly attacked the nuclear accord as “one of the worst deals ever made.”
The 2015 agreement — a signature policy of the Obama administration — was incorporated into international law by the UN Security Council. The new sanctions do not affect US compliance with the accord to limit Iran’s nuclear programme, according to a US official. They also are not expected to derail Boeing’s near $17bn deal to sell jets to Iran, which was announced in December.
US officials said the moves were aimed at disrupting procurement networks that support Iran’s missile programme and help it launch terror attacks, including through Hizbollah, the Shia Lebanese movement, and Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Quds Force.
US officials said the Iranian missile test came in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution. Iran has insisted the test did not violate the nuclear deal.
“This is a very targeted list,” said Adam Smith, a former Treasury official with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which backs confrontation with Iran, said he expected more sanctions to follow.
“These targeted sanctions are part of an escalation strategy designed to use all instruments of American power to punish and deter,” said Mr Dubowitz.
Broad sanctions “that inflict an economic cost on the Iranian regime” are likely within 60 days, he added.
New limits will be imposed on parts of the Iranian economy that support the missile programme, such as mining and metallurgy, petrochemicals, telecoms, computer science and construction, Mr Dubowitz said.
The National Iranian American Council, however, warned that the administration was on “a dangerous escalatory path with Iran without any diplomatic approach or exit strategy”.
Any sanctions represent a blow to Iran’s centrist president, Hassan Rouhani, who hopes to ride the nuclear agreement — and prospects of economic gains — to re-election in May. Reformist politicians worry that Iran’s hardliners will seize on new sanctions to undermine moderate forces in the run-up to the presidential poll.
Under the deal, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of many western sanctions. US financial sanctions, related to allegations that Iran is a regional sponsor of terrorism, remain in place.
Mr Trump said later that Iran was “not behaving”.